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Monday, 28 May 2018

First you take down all the stones. Then you put them back together. Doesn't really sound like a fun weekend, does it?

 
It's all quite simple, really. You start with a wall that needs fixing. Most likely it looks a little like this, but perhaps a little more dilapidated:



Then you take it apart, stone by stone, until it looks a little like this:



Welcome to the weekend dry-stone walling course. It was my idea - a birthday present for my partner. (I am relieved to say she was delighted.) The courses are run by the Otley and Yorkshire Dales Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (http://www.otleyyorksdalesdswa.org/), and they're very reasonably priced.

You start by taking the wall apart, laying all the stones out in rows for future reference. I should mention that we were dealing with millstone grit, a coarse and quite crumbly rock.

The problems begin when you try to re-assemble your wall. Number one, those rocks are heavy, especially the foundations. (You start with the big ones, and progress to smaller ones as you work your way up the wall.)  Number two, you can't always  figure out which way up the stones go - and in any case, that's always open to debate. And number three, there are rules.  For example, you mustn't have wobbly rocks. You can't have one vertical joint above another. And you try to make sure that a fair percentage of the stones go deep into the wall - which is slimmer at the top than it is at the bottom (in our case the base was four feet wide, the top two).

However, you can modify a stone - mostly by grabbing a hammer and knocking lumps out of it. As you bang away you may see the odd spark, and smell a whiff of sulphur. You'll be glad they provided safety goggles. The lumps you chip off will come in useful as 'hearting' or in-fill. The shards or wedge-shaped bits are useful for 'pinning' a rock that might otherwise be unstable.



Fitting the stones together taxes the brain. I should imagine our group of twenty-odd folk could have mustered several degrees between us, but we did an awful lot of humming and hah-ing, deliberating at length over the best position for each and every stone.



Eventually, lunchtime arrived. I had prepared one of my favourite outdoor meals, a simple blend of grease, salt, and sugar: a pork pie, an Eccles cake, and a tomato for balance. It's a menu that has re-energised me on many a hike or bike-ride.

Slowly, course by course, we built up our wall. During a break on day 2 we were invited to stroll across a neighbouring field to take a look at what we might achieve if we were true masters of the craft. We managed not to be too disheartened.




Finally, sometime on the afternoon of the second day, our walled reached the desired height. We knew we'd got there because we'd used up most of the stones we'd laid out on the first morning - although there was still a remarkable number of bits and pieces scattered over the grass.

Our new wall, ready for capping

For the final stage we formed an orderly line, grabbed a capstone apiece and placed it on top of our impressively level structure:




As we stood and admired our work, I had to ask the course instructor the question that a few of us had voiced already. 'So I guess the next course participants take this down and re-built it, do they?' We were assured that this was not the case. It seems that the re-construction of walls on this particular farm was ongoing, and  our work was expected to stand for many decades.

We thoroughly enjoyed the course, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a different sort of weekend away. I have an unsettling feeling that we may have caught a bug. There was talk this morning of investigating a weekend in Malham, where we would be working on limestone. We shall see.






 

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Sherlock Holmes, On The Road and... How the hell did I end up writing a German musical?

The face of team member Alan Wilkinson. Only after I sent it did I realise it is now 7 years old. (And that I am still wearing the shirt from time to time!)

I am well aware of how busy I am. I'm approaching the launch of the biography of Eric Knight, the man who wrote Lassie, I have an agreement to help an Asian entrepreneur write her life story, the Welsh MP job is barely half done, and down at the allotment the ground elder is tickling my knee-caps - or would be if the weather were warm enough to bring me out in my rather fetching khaki shorts.

So I really ought not get into conversations with strange men in pubs.

To be fair, Steve is not all that strange. I met him on a one-day course in social media management for 'small creative industries'. I like that. I generally introduce myself simply as a writer, but now I see myself at parties, creating a stir with a new line:

'Hi, and what do you do?'
'Oh, I guess you'd call me a small creative industry - and you?' (which roughly translates as, 'Pick the bones out of that, jerk!')

Anyway, I liked Steve (he's a film-maker and when I find a web-link for him I'll post it). I asked him out for a drink, and later he texted me to say he was bringing along a chum, an Iranian-German theatre director from Cologne (or Koln if you prefer) called Bettina Montazem (https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=Bettina%20Montazem).

It's great meeting new people, especially if they are the type, as Steve is, who asks you for your back-story (and two hours later wishes he hadn't). It wasn't long before we got onto my many jobs (50 before I turned 50, as you'll recall if you've been paying attention), and then my literary interests and achievements.

As soon as I mentioned the Kerouac House in Florida (https://www.kerouacproject.org/) where I was resident for 3 months in 2004, he told me that he and Bettina had just been On The Road for 3 weeks, circulating Europe in search of funding for a musical they were planning: Sherlock Holmes (https://www.facebook.com/thesherlockmusical/).

Draining their pints, they declared that our meeting was doubly fortuitous. Not only do we all have a thing about road trips in general, but guess what? The German writers they had brought on board to write the script turned out to be a bunch of losers and... whose round is it, by the way?

Another pint, a hand-shake, a follow-up meeting a few days later, and I found myself co-opted onto a small team which comprises Steve the film-maker, Bettina the director, her partner Richard, blues man extraordinaire (wow, check him out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywntWdicrZ4) and song-writer/composer Steve Nobles, whom I will meet next Thursday when we start the proper work.

Ee, life: you never can tell what will happen next. 

Friday, 11 May 2018

Inter-dental brushes, thirsty tomatoes, estate agents and lolly sticks - or, Things That Stop Me Writing

One of the many distractions at this time of year

I am a very productive writer. 26 books in the last twenty years, approximately. Plus half a dozen yet to find a publisher. And when I’m writing I make myself crank out 1,000 words a day, rain or shine. That, I tell people, is how books get written. Four months, 90,000 words.

On a non-fiction project such as I am working on now (a biography of a retired Member of Parliament), with my research done and lots of notes to draw on, I can do 2, 3, 4,000 a day. Yesterday I peaked: close to 5,000.

But I could do more - were it not for interruptions. Once I get my head down and start typing I hate them. (Single exception: lunch, which could come twice a day as far as I am concerned. Three times. Whatever you like.)

But this week? Let me count the ways.

Phone calls. One from a daughter whose car has broken down. One from another daughter who is looking for a flat in Liverpool. Love them both, but please – can it wait?  Phone call from a guy who wants to follow up on my new website, which his outfit subsidised last summer. Has it changed my business, my life, my social media interaction? I’ll have to think. Texts from mates about the weekend’s footie results (not good, so will you all please bugger off?)

Meanwhile I scribe away, shifting my attention from this set of interview notes to that one, shuffling the pile. There are four sets in front of me, plus a 24-page transcript of an epic recording session. Most of the guy’s stories are told in shreds and patches across every damned encounter. A lot of shuffling is involved. My desk is a sea of A4 sheets, scattered paper-clips and lost pens.

Phone call. I am coming by to talk about that website. This afternoon, if it’s okay. I can’t say no, can I? They did £1000 worth of work, all paid for by the European Community. Sure, see you about two.

Daughter no. 1 is back on: the car’s a write-off and I can’t afford…. Okay okay. Yes. Of course. Open online bank account. Wince. Start again.

Lunch! Yes. Enjoy that and settle back to work. Then I remember. Teeth. I’ve had a finger-wagging from my dentist. They never used to take this long: three minutes of electric droning, then the inter-dental brushes in two separate sizes….

Back to the keyboard, grimacing at the sting of peppermint which has eradicated the gorgeous flavour of my single daily cup of super-strength coffee. When is someone going to bring out a caffeinated dental cream? Or crème?

Pling! An email from my beloved: she is on a rowing boat with her brother. Reply, through gritted teeth: have fun. Don’t drown or anything.

The milkman is at the door, and he wants paying. Would like to chat. Yes, we still have milk delivered in the northeast. By chatty delivery men. Shelve out £45 and go back to my study. Now, where was I? Ah yes, the corridors of power – and a juicy bit of gossip about Mrs Thatcher. 

Phone call. It’s the estate agent, trying to sell us a three-bedroomed house on the edge of town when we already established that we wanted four beds close to the centre. Somehow contrive to be polite, despite feeling like ripping his head off.

As the sun comes out and starts blazing through window, I close the blind, then drop everything and rush outside. At the allotment I open the greenhouse windows and water my wilting, gasping, grateful tomatoes. And stop a while to earth up the spuds (see photo, above).

Back to desk and count the day’s words. Wonder how in God’s name I got to 1,216 already.

Shuffle papers on desk, bang out another 137 words (yes, some days I really do check the total every half hour; doesn't everyone?).

While musing on a way to open the next paragraph I spot under the screen a white NHS envelope. Oh bugger! The biennial bowel cancer screening tests, which have been sitting there for three weeks.

Repair to the toilet, armed with lolly sticks and a waterproof envelope. (You’ve been there? You’re clearly older than you look. You’re bemused? Wait till you pass sixty: that’s when the fun really starts.) 

The door bell. Oh shit: the guy about the website. Spend 45 minutes convincing him that the money was well spent.

Back to it. Somehow, I bang out the words. From somewhere I find the energy to write a blog post. Somehow, when I do the word count tonight, I will have reached my daily target. I always do. Somehow.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

At the Alderney Literary Festival

Not Alderney (which is indeed very small), but an islet off the coast, home to a zillion gannets.

 
I had never been to the Channel Islands, let alone Alderney (pop. 1900). So it was a thrill to be invited to the Literary Festival, which ran Friday 23rd to Sunday 25th March.

I was there to talk about my novel, Cody, The Medicine Man and Me, and the way in which I used  events from my personal and other histories to piece together a narrative.

Boy, did they look after us. From the moment I arrived it was one reception after another, with fine dining nightly - alternating between restaurants and our (very generous) sponsors' homes. (For homes, on this fortress island, read 'fort' in many cases.)



As well as the many visible relics of the German occupation which are scattered around the island, there are extensive networks of underground workings, still being explored to this day. In addition, there are a number of older fortifications built by the British and dating back to the mid- to early nineteenth century. The enemy then was France.



The harbour at Braye is a gentle 15-minute walk from the centre of 'La Ville', as the island's only town is known - and a 20-minute trudge back up the hill. It is protected by this monster of a jetty, built in the 1850s at a cost of over £1,000,000. Its original length was almost 1.5 kilometres, but heavy seas rapidly reduced that to around 900 metres.

I was doubly lucky when I took a stroll on Monday morning, barely an hour before my flight departed: one, the sun was shining for the first time since Friday; and two, they had removed the barricade which stops pedestrians venturing onto it when, as it was all weekend, the wind was blowing huge waves over the top.

Apart from the several literary events I attended, I managed a novel footballing pilgrimage. It happened that the annual semi-final of the Muratti Cup was being played, between the local minnows, Alderney FC, and Guernsey, who play in the English Level 8, the Isthmian League. Their chairman is none other than Matt Le Tissier.

So, on Saturday, I walked the couple of miles to their ground (The Arsenal), paid my £3 and joined 400-odd spectators for a tightly fought game which ended 2-0 to the visitors. Half froze to death,  but enjoyed notching up my 49th U.K. football ground

Alderney (in blue) mount an  attack in the first half.
As well as a short bike ride, when the rain let up, I took a two-hour bus tour and tried to explore 'La Ville' on foot. Hard to imagine, but I got lost a number of times. 

Street scene in 'La Ville'


If you've never been to the Islands, or imagine that such tiny dots on the map wouldn't entertain you past the first day, think again. I managed to explore just a small portion of Alderney (it's little more than 3 miles by 1.5) and soon realised that I could comfortably keep myself busy for a week or two. (I believe there are 12 pubs, for a start.)

So now it's back to work - or rather, my Speed Awareness course, in Hartlepool, later in the week
 

Sunday, 18 March 2018

What Better Place to Write About Nature? A Month's Retreat in the Scottish Highlands.


The view from our garden, of Ben Resipol.
 

The plan was to spend four weeks in the middle of nowhere. My partner, Alyson, wanted to paint; I planned to start a new book, about my many attempts, over a lifetime, to find and embrace natural surroundings. We could not have found a better place for the task than this little hideaway in the Scottish Highlands.
 
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. It was a remote spot, six miles down the shore of the loch, along a rough track pitted with deep holes, most of them full of water which hid submerged rocks. But we seemed to be off to a good start. The weather was kind for mid-February, and the scenery spectacular.

 
The house was tucked away at the end of a muddy track, well sheltered from the north winds

It was after we’d located the key that the excitement started. The place had mostly been empty since the autumn. Empty of humans, that is. So the mice – cute little brown field mice who wouldn’t hurt a soul – had moved in. As far as we could see, they had then spent the winter months chewing. They’d chewed the plastic box that contained the candles. They’d chewed the candles. They’d chewed the foam rubber seating of the settee. They’d chewed the kitchen sponges. And, of course, they had left their droppings on every surface.

We rolled up our sleeves, lit a fire and cleaned up. I put on my ex-rat-catcher face and declared war. It was a long-drawn-out affair, lasting all but a few days of the four weeks we were there, but, although I burned the bodies and have no evidence, I am claiming victory. Those last few days we neither saw nor heard them once.

The mice were a passing irritant compared to what followed. The gas lights didn’t work – or rather, some did, but had a disturbing habit of triggering the carbon monoxide alarm. We decided to stick with candles. Romantic, cosy, but you can’t read without a lot of squinting – and the light was still fading around six most days. So we played Scrabble, nightly.
 
The solar power didn’t work, so neither could I. I can write a journal long-hand, which I did, but cannot compose that way. I've just been using a pc for way too long. We’d been there nine days before we located the source of the problem – defunct storage batteries – and managed to replace them. Then, at last, I could fire up my laptop and write. Which you can bet I did. 26,000 words - good words, if you want my opinion - in 16 days.

We managed too to get out hiking every day, and that was a great joy. Around us were mountains, woods, burns and lochs. The walking was never easy, but rarely impossible. The vegetation was mostly grass, which grew in tussocks, along with bracken, reeds and mosses – which meant that, although the ground was very wet at times, there was almost always somewhere to take your next step that wasn’t a foot deep in water.
 
This lovely stretch of water was less than half an hour's walk away, but note the coarse vegetation

As the days went by our early fair weather gave way to bitter cold. Our water supply, which came direct from a mountain stream, froze solid. We carried buckets up to the nearest pool to collect what we needed for washing, further up to fill bottles for drinking. After two or three such days the sound of gurgling in the sink was an unbelievable thrill.

For our first few days the house was icy cold. It had been empty for months. I regularly slept in a full set of long merino wool underwear, occasionally with a hat on – and that was under two duvets. One night I got into a sleeping-bag too. But slowly, with the fire on all day every day, the stone walls warmed up. That was the first great comfort of the place, the cast-iron stove. Regularly stoked with coal, it heated gallons of scalding water and gave us our second great pleasure, a nightly hot bath.

Gradually we settled to our respective rhythms - Alyson painting while I wrote. Suddenly the days were flying by. We were equally productive, equally frustrated when our time came to an end. We will return. Of that we are sure. Looking out on scenes like this on a daily basis is addictive.

 
A peaceful evening view across Loch Shiel to Ben Resipol